Sir John A. Macdonald -- A Great Canadian

Is Sir John A. Macdonald a hero or a villain?  Should his statues be toppled and his name removed from schools?  Or should we make his birthday a national holiday – and celebrate it with bare knees and ice at the annual Sir John A's Great Canadian Kilt Skate?

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The debate has swirled since the Ontario teachers union recommended that Sir John A’s name be removed from schools in the province. I find myself asking, “What would Sir John A. himself have done?”

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The man was pragmatic rather than idealistic. His achievements came about because of his ability to find common ground with his opponents – even seemingly implacable enemies like George Brown.

I think Macdonald would begin by acknowledging that, when they disagreed with him, his opponents were not being vexatious, frivolous or ignorant. They had their own deep reasons for taking a different stand. Although I don’t agree with the teachers’ union, I make it a point to try to understand why they believe what they do. Sir John A. did not understand the place that indigenous peoples hold in Canada's history, but that's no excuse for us not to.

The confederation of Canada 150 years ago was his towering achievement and Macdonald is rightly regarded as the nation's principal architect. But the stone with which this architecture was built were carved and fixed by previous generations. A separate and distinct entity in the northern half of North America was possible because of a special and unique relationship between those who came from Europe and the indigenous peoples. 


Indigenous peoples were not always treated fairly by those who came to Canada. But they were not enslaved, as they were by the conquistadors. And apart from a few appalling episodes such as the Beothuks in Newfoundland, they were not exterminated, as they were elsewhere. One of the aspects of our history that sets Canada apart from other nations is that, for the first centuries of European colonization, the two civilizations worked together in comparative harmony. Without that partnership then, Canada would probably not exist today.


The early French explorers, settlers, missionaries and fur traders established a symbiotic relationship with the people they encountered.  With their indigenous allies and partners, New France created a vast trading empire from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains. The English and Spanish colonies were more populous, but the alliance between the French and the First Nations enabled New France to defend itself. 


The importance of First Nations as allies continued after Britain eventually defeated the French and seized control of Canada. The Crown signed a Proclamation forbidding settlers from moving into First Nations territories. In effect, they treated indigenous peoples as though they were sovereign peoples under British protection rather than subjects of the British Crown. It's a distinction that continues to resonate.


At the time, the Royal Proclamation was highly controversial -- particularly among the 13 American colonies. When the conflict shifted from wars between Britain and France to wars for American independence, it was by no means certain which side the sovereign First Nations would take. Most eventually did ally with the Crown. They trusted the King and his representatives more than the Continental Congress. The Crown and its First Nation allies lost the war. Many indigenous people, such as the inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley, came to Canada as refugees along with other “Loyalists.” 


But their continuing loyalty was by no means assured.  They remained sovereign -- and this distinction was crucial when Canada became the battleground in the war between Britain and the United States that began again in 1812.

Unsung heroes like John Norton – a Mohawk war chief whose father was Cherokee and his mother Scottish – were pivotal figures in defending Canada from the American invasions during the War of 1812. This was not only because their decisive interventions in many battles. In Norton’s case, it was also a matter of persuading his people to stand by the British in the darkest days of the war, when many voices called for joining with the victorious Americans.

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John Norton, along with John Brant, now has his statue at the battlefield of Queenston Heights.  There ought to be more tributes to First Nations figures. There ought to be schools named after them.  

But it was not only through their military alliances that indigenous peoples helped shape the Canada that Macdonald would bring together under Confederation. They also created trade networks and commercial relations. The French traders established ties of kinship. The English and Scottish traders of the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company continued to intermarry with the indigenous population.

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By the time of Confederation, a powerful mixed-race culture – today called Metis – inhabited the Canadian West, and its ties to British and French heritage helped insure that, rather than being absorbed by American annexationists, the West became part of Canada.


Macdonald was a lawyer and constitutional expert, not an historian. He and Canadians like Charles Mair, who moved west to help claim the land for Canada, remained oblivious to special relationship that war and commerce had created in past generations. By then, smallpox and the disappearance of the buffalo had reduced First Nations to a fraction of what they had been a few decades earlier.


Mair was a poet. He romanticized the original peoples, but he believed – like most Canadians of his time – that their culture was doomed to extinction.  When Canadians then, including progressive thinkers like Egerton Ryerson, called for First Nations to be educated in residential schools, it was not out of a desire to wipe out a people; instead, they thought this was the way to ensure their survival as individuals. To call this a “genocide” does not respect the experience to those peoples elsewhere in the world who have been subjected to concerted efforts to wipe out a population – individuals and all.


Sir John A. Macdonald had a complex relationship with first peoples. As a lawyer he had represented them as clients. He counted some prominent Ottawa First Nation leaders among his personal friends. He put forward legislation to give indigenous people the vote. But like so many of his day, he considered First Nations culture to be inferior and doomed to extinction with the spread of "civilization."


His methods to force First Nations to abandon their traditional ways were sometimes ruthless. He approved withholding food so that starvation would force bands, including Big Bear and his followers, to take up reserves.

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He was the architect of the Indian Act, on which he said, "The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”


Macdonald was not the first to advocate assimilation, nor would he be the last.  In setting up residential schools, be maintained that to be properly trained, a child should be removed from his family; otherwise, said Macdonald, “He is simply a savage who can read and write.”


When the indigenous people of the West rose up to defy Canada's authority, Macdonald acted decisively. He sent armies to occupy the West after the Metis resistance in Manitoba, and put down the later rebellion in Saskatchewan. He saw to it that the leader of those uprisings, Louis Riel, hanged.

But at the same time, one of his principle contributions to Canada was his protection of the West from the aggressive expansion of the United States. To put down the illicit whiskey trade that had come up from the American West, and establish order and the rule of law on the prairies, he created the North West Mounted Police.


There are those who may argue that all of this represents a legacy of colonialism and oppression. But the fact remains: in large part because of Macdonald's policies, the Canadian West had a history far different from that south of the border – especially when it came to relations with First Nations. 


How different? Following the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Sitting Bull and the Sioux fled to Canada where they received protection.

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It is not likely they would have crossed “the medicine line” if they did not believe that the treatment they would receive in Canada would be significantly different from what they would face had they stayed to face the U.S. cavalry. Sitting Bull's return to the USA had its controversies, and Macdonald must shoulder much of the responsibility.

But First Nations people in Canada during the Macdonald era faced less likelihood of meeting a violent end than their counterparts in the United States. When war did come to the Canadian West in 1885, most of the First Nations, including the Blackfoot under Crowfoot, did not join in the uprising.


In fact, Canada experienced no widespread “Indian war” such as had been the experience south of the border. No massacres such as WashitaWounded Knee or Marias.  From the time of Confederation until Macdonald’s death, there were 14 massacres of First Nations people in the United States. The estimates of the number of women, children and men killed range from 1,047 to 1,167. 


These massacres are in addition to the pitched battles between First Nations and American forces during the Indian Wars between 1850 and 1890 in which an estimated 15,000 indigenous people were killed – comprising 69% of the casualties of the war. 

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Compare this to Canada.  A rebellion broke out late in 1884 and it was over by the spring of 1885. The casualties were, on the "Canadian" side: 38 soldiers and NWMP and 11 civilians killed; on the "rebel" side, the dead included 38 Metis and 10-17 Cree killed.


Apart from this brief rebellion, the settlement of the Canadian West was characterized by peace, order and...well, you cannot say it was necessarily good government. Good government would have ensured that the rebellion had not broken out in the first place.


 Macdonald's legacy as Minister of Indian Affairs is a mixed one, and it is good to remind ourselves that our heroes have not always been on what we today consider the right side of moral issues. But our analysis of the great figures of our past should not become a means of endorsing this or that current political agenda. We need to look at the broader picture in its own historical context, and in that respect, few people in history can match to Macdonald’s accomplishments in Canada.


This was brought home eloquently earlier this year when Dr. Philippe Azzie of Carleton University spoke at a Canada150 event organized by the Old Ottawa East Community Association. He pointed out how Macdonald excelled in three distinct but related fields: as founder, nation builder, and leader.


He was a founder of Canada – a Father of Confederation. In fact, he was the principal architect of our Constitution. But earlier he also founded an alliance that brought Canada West Tories with Canada East Bleus to form a political party that has helped shape Canada ever since.

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As a nation builder, he held office as Prime Minister for 19 of Canada’s formative first 24 years. Under his guidance, four eastern provinces grew to become a trans-continental dominion. Among the achievements Professor Azzie listed:

·         Prime Minister during the creation of the provinces of Manitoba, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island;

·         the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway;

·         the establishment of the North West Mounted Police;

·         Canada’s first labour legislation (Trade Unions Act of 1873); and,

·         the implementation of the National Policy of tariff protection.

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As a leader, he held a Parliamentary Caucus together and led his Party to victory in six federal elections. His leadership style was pragmatic and practical. It was both partisan and patriotic. He used camaraderie and good humour to make allies and placate opponents.


While one could argue that other Canadians were equally important and exceptional in one or even two of those fields, Professor Azzie points out that no one matches Macdonald in combining all three. Mackenzie-King governed the country longer, but did not help create the country and its constitution. Apart from Charles Tupper’s administration which lasted a mere ten weeks, none of the other Fathers of Confederation led a federal government. Wilfrid Laurier may have been Macdonald’s equal as a Parliamentarian and a nation builder, but he was not a founder.

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What was Macdonald like?  “When we think about Macdonald,” says Professor Azzie, “we tend to forget or not know how highly intelligent he was.”  He deliberately cultivated an image of himself as a practical man, not much interested in visionary ideas.  Yet, he was the most adept constitutional scholar among the Fathers of Confederation.

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Professor Azzie noted that, “He genuinely liked people – including political opponents – and had a legendary memory for names and faces.” His life was marred with personal tragedy, but he maintained an aura of bonhomie and good will.

And that is the spirit we should bring to the current debate over Macdonald's relationship with indigenous peoples -- and the question of whether his statues toppled and the schools renamed. I say let him enjoy his laurels – he’s deserves them. We'll acknowledge that he had his character flaws and some of his views don't square with the sensibilities of 2017. But let’s continue to celebrate his birthday every year with Sir John A’s Great Canadian Kilt Skate.

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Robert Borden -- PM in Peace and War

Robert Borden -- PM in Peace and War

He came to office after defeating Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s proposal to implement free trade with the United States, and believed that Canada should take a prominent place in what he foresaw as a great federation of the dominions of the British Empire. By the time he left office, the political landscape and the definition of “progressive” had changed dramatically, with the rise of Labour and Farmers’ organizations that clashed with the government – violently in the case of the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919.

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21st Century City; 18th Century Canals

When Joe Willcocks left Ireland for Upper Canada in 1799, he said goodbye to the "Second City of the British Empire" to seek his fortune in "Muddy York."

Both Dublin and Toronto are thriving in the 21st century. In Dublin, far more than Toronto, it's still possible to get a feel for the city as it once was. Last week, we had the privilege and pleasure of a barge ride through the transportation system that helped make Dublin such a wealthy city in Willcocks's day.

The barge had the unromantic name of 4E. In 1980, she was purchased by a young man named Joe Treacy. He paid 1,800 pounds for her, and he and 4E have been aging elegantly together ever since.

Her original name was Horse Boat Number 54 -- back in the days when a barge was pulled by a horse treading the towpaths alongside the canals.  

She carried turf into Dublin and wheat back to the Odlums’ Mills, which was a well known institution in the Irish food industry, located at Sallins about 40 kilometers from Dublin in County Kildare, 

When she was fitted with an engine in 1913, her name was changed to 23M. Over the next decades, she went through several more name changes -- all involving combinations of letters and numbers. In the 1950s she was breached and abandoned; she became the home of a former canal employee who made some repairs. Joe Treacy bought her and had her hauled by tractor and truck and refloated in the Grand Canal. 

That's not where we found her and Joe. Instead, they were docked near the Five Lamps on the Royal Canal, within sight of the football stadium at Croke Park. 


Work on the Royal Canal  began in 1790, and it took 27 years build the link across Ireland to the Shannon River. We travelled through locks that operated on the same hand-cranked technology of Joe Willcocks's day. Here the lockmaster and her crew crank open the sluices.

This allows the water to drain to the lower lock.

The boat lowers with the water level, and we look back at the gates we've passed through.

Once the water level is even on each side of the lock, the gates can be swung open.

And we pass through, under the bridge, along the next stretch of the Royal Canal.

Within a few decades, canal technology was overtaken by the transformative revolution of railways. Here is a spot where the railway track must be lifted so the barge can pass underneath.

The railway workers are happy to oblige.

In fact, when E4 runs aground on a turn...

And we have trouble poling her back into mid-channel...

The railway men help haul back on course.

We make our way down the Royal Canal. Here's a houseboat in the style used on the canals in Great Britain.

As we reach the end of the canal, the 21st century begins to show itself.

We reach the end of the Royal Canal, where the last locks bring the watercraft down to the River Liffey.

The technology is modern too.  No hand-wound cranks to operate these locks!

We enter the River Liffey.

As a young man, Paula's grandfather used to swim this river.  Now swimming is prohibited.  In fact, Paula's brother is among the firefighter crew that rescues people who have jumped into the Liffey.

We enter the river at the Samuel Beckett Bridge with its distinctive "pirhanna" design.

And we turn to port and head downriver toward the Irish Sea.

All along our voyage, we've been accompanied by a second barge, owned by Joe Treacy's 20-year-old son Ben.

Ben salvaged his barge from Tullamore, where it had sunk many years before. He regards refurbishing it as a long-term project while he finishes engineering school.

As we steer toward Dublin harbour and the mouth of the Liffey, we come to Ringsend - the neighbourhood where the high tech sector is building offices and accommodations for information technology workers.

Turn to starboard and head up the Royal Canal's southside sister, the Grand Canal.

The tide is low, but rising.

While we wait for the tide to rise, we're visit by a traditional Irish currach -- lads out for a row during their lunch break.

Finally the tide has risen enough for us to take our places in the lock.

It's a tight fit.

The water enters the lock and the boats rise.

Up to the next level.

We enter the Grand Canal Basin.

This is the heart of hip, trendy, 21st century Dublin.

But Captain Treacy decides to make his presence known.

Up in the Grand Canal Basin, the water levels are high. It's a tight squeeze.  "Low bridge. Everybody down. Low bridge. We're coming to a town..."

Through the other side we find a place where the centuries meet.

And we've reached our docking place.

Home at last.

Thanks for the ride, Joe.

General Brock survives the charge!

General Brock survives the charge!

We divided our army into three:  one force to assault the "guns" head on; two more to swing around the flanks in either direction.  The assault force in the centre were to march forward bravely; the other two were told to use whatever stealth and cover they could find -- not easy to do when one side of the battlefield is cordoned off by a fence.  

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John Norton -- recognition at last!

John Norton -- recognition at last!

From his mother's side, he wrote very well and his diaries and memoirs stand out as important records of the world of North America in his day. From his father's side, he had the capacity for memory that comes from a culture that does not write things down -- and therefore you must remember.  Every conversation. Every river bend. Every transaction.  Norton never forgot a thing.  Here was a man whose brain was adept with the skills of both pre-Gutenberg and post-Gutenberg communications.  Marshall McLuhan would have loved it!

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The Battle of Glengarry

The Battle of Glengarry

On a sunny autumn weekend, September 24-25, two armies clashed on the grass that stretched between fields of ripening corn and a scattering of pre-Confederations buildings. The armies of soldiers, sailors, soldiers' wives, camp followers and Mohawk warriors were actually outnumbered by the army of visitors who had come to witness the event.

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Dunvegan welcomes the school kids

Dunvegan welcomes the school kids

Drive an hour east of Ottawa and get off Highway 417 and you'll find yourself on the old stagecoach road to Montreal and the village of Dunvegan. In the mid-1800s it was a prosperous little village. A store was built in 1840 by a man named McIntosh, and 20 years later it had changed owners and welcomed travellers as the White Star Inn,.

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Revisiting Upper Canada Village -- and Crysler's Farm

Revisiting Upper Canada Village -- and Crysler's Farm

A very special thank you to Linda Brown, who operates the printer's shop in the village. She gave me much information that went into the part in Brothers at War where Jacob apprentices to Joe Willcocks. I imagined Linda's shop when I pictured the scene where Jacob and Eli are clowning about and tip over the letter cases.

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The Dubliners who came to save Canada -- and decided to stay

The Dubliners who came to save Canada -- and decided to stay

In the Ottawa Valley, the 100th Regiment of Foot is best known for the founding of the town of Richmond, Ontario. After the war, rather than return to Ireland, many officers and men chose instead to take land grants offered by a grateful British government -- grateful for their service in the war, and grateful that hundreds of unemployed soldiers would not be returning to the Old Country.

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Neuf Thermidor -- and politics

Neuf Thermidor -- and politics

In understanding the War of 1812 and the role of Joe Willcocks and the Canadian Volunteers, it is useful to keep 9 Thermidor and the Terror in mind. The date may be remote and obscure for us, but for people in Upper Canada, the French Revolution continued to resonate.

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The victors write the history.

The victors write the history.

In Canada, we had our own republic movement in 1813-14. The men who fought, risked their property and liberty for the idea of a republic, and died in battle and on the scaffold are virtually forgotten today. No one knows where Joe Willcocks is buried, but some think it might be beneath what is now a parking lot in downtown Fort Erie. I know of at least one historian who, if he could identify Willcocks' final resting place, would make a point of going there and pissing on it.

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Imagining Ball's Farm

Imagining Ball's Farm

n American officer who arrived on the scene after the fighting would later report that nothing could have prepared him for "a scene of wanton and revolting barbarity.  [The warriors] had left on the ground nearly half of the detachment, most of them dead, but some of them still breathing, though scarcely sensible.  Every body was utterly stripped, and scalped, and mangled and maimed in a way that looked as if there had been a sort of sportive butchery among the dying and the dead. [One man had] more than a dozen of these gashes and lacerations. [His head was] denuded from the eye-brows to the back of the neck [but he] was still breathing and sensible when our party reached him." 

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What did soldiers eat? Not enough!

What did soldiers eat? Not enough!

So when they could not buy  food, the soldiers on both sides resorted to stealing, looting and plundering. Both sides prohibited looting, but soldiers in the American and Crown armies did rob local farms in the Niagara peninsula. Thomas Ridout, a junior officer in the Crown forces wrote to his father in September 1813, "Tonight our dragoon is to make a grand attack on the onions.The nests are kept very nice and clean from eggs. [ie. he was stealing from the hen houses]. We feed a turkey at our door which is doomed for our Sunday dinner." Elsewhere, Ridout refers to "an extensive robbing of peas, apples, onions, corn, carrots." [Sheppard p. 100]

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Report from the home front

Report from the home front

When the Canadian Volunteers met for their Regimental Dinner at Fort George this past weekend, they were allowed to use the kitchen to prepare the meal, and the officer's mess to enjoy it. It's one thing for the soldier re-enactors to train according to Napoleonic drill manuals, and fire replicas of 1812 muskets. It's quite another to be able to prepare a banquet feast using the technologies and techniques of 200 years ago.

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